A Serge missionary once quipped that going into missions is like “pouring Miracle-Grow on your sins.” Truer words have never been spoken!
Mission trips have a way of wearing through the veneer of politeness and self-sufficiency that most of us rely on at home.
Not only are we battling a new environment, a new schedule, and often a new culture, we face all of our ordinary struggles too. Extroverts get seated next to introverts on long planes, trains, and car rides. Early risers become roommates with night owls, and, always, without fail, at least one person snores.
On top of that, we’re all thrown together in a sort of spiritual cage match, unable to retreat to the peace and safety of “home” the way we normally can. After a few long days of ministry, it’s easy to see how conflict, hurt feelings, and resentment are part of every mission trip.
But the realities of mission trips do something else too.
They reveal something that was there all along — the hunger in our hearts for things only Jesus can give.
In John 13 and Luke 22, we see Jesus nearing the end of His earthly ministry. And we discover some of the last moments Jesus will have with His disciples before His arrest and crucifixion.
But what was supposed to be a final, intimate gathering of spiritual brothers has deteriorated into bickering about reputations and rights; a return to a frequent squabble about who should serve and who should be served. In a very real sense, the disciples were saying through their actions and arguments, “I may not be perfect, but I’m better than you.”
Of course, there was someone in the room who was actually perfect and who deserved to be served by everyone else. And what was Jesus’s response to all of this? A stern rebuke? An exasperated appeal for the disciples to get their act together?
No. Instead, the master became a servant, so that His sinful creatures could see their need for a Savior.
As twenty-first-century readers, it’s easy for us to miss what would have been obvious to the original audience.
First, only the lowliest servant, often only non-Jewish slaves, would be assigned the task of foot washing. It was a humbling task that no one would perform unless he was forced to do so. Yet Jesus again confounds everyone’s expectations, assuming the role of slave to show His sin-stunted disciples just how great God’s love for them truly was.
Second, even if Jesus took only a few minutes with each disciple, it would have likely taken 30 to 40 minutes to serve everyone. And every disciple—including Judas!—would have watched as Jesus repeated the process over and over again until it was their turn.
What would you be thinking if you saw Jesus, your Lord and Master, the Son of God, your Savior, the one who had raised people from the dead and cast out demons, kneel down before you, look you lovingly in the eyes and take your dirty, smelly feet in His hands to wash them?
Peter is the only one with enough nerve to say what everyone else was probably thinking, “Really Jesus? You are going to wash my feet? I can’t have that!”
But Jesus knows exactly what is at stake, and it’s far more than dirty feet jockeying for position. The disciples still haven’t understood what it’s going to take to ultimately cleans them from their sins. So Jesus insists. And, of course, Peter resists. John’s language helps us understand that Peter’s opposition is real: “No, Jesus. You will never, ever, under any circumstances wash my feet.”
But Jesus is just as emphatic.
Without the sacrificial cleansing that Jesus would soon accomplish for him on the cross, Peter—and the rest of us—would remain mired in sin. No amount of self-generated achievement will be enough to give the record we need to stand before God.
What started out as disagreement about “who was the greatest” has come full circle: How can anyone, ever, be accepted by a holy God, no matter how “great” we are? Jesus knew that over the next few hours, His disciples would find out exactly what it would take to not just become acceptable, but to be welcomed by the Father as beloved sons.
It’s shocking to me that Jesus washed Judas’s feet right along with everyone else’s. If one of my teammates had betrayed me with the hope of seeing me put to death, I wouldn’t go out of my way to love him. Yet the ugliness of Judas’s betrayal, the blindness of Peter’s pride, the disciples’ bickering about their status, or my grumbling about carrying someone’s luggage all have a common cause.
They are all the result of failing to see that Jesus—and only Jesus—is enough to satisfy our deepest needs.
I’d like to think that I’m a lot more spiritually perceptive than the disciples. But most of the time, I’m not. I’m too preoccupied with my place, position, status, and reputation. I too want to be served, which leads to the same sort of grumbling conflict that the disciples had on that night so long ago.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. The gospel offers a different way to live and love others that is open to me, even when it’s hard or I don’t feel like it.
When my heart gets anxious or frustrated at not being treated the way I think I deserve, the gospel reminds me to look to the One who truly loves me.
In those moments, my deepest need isn’t just for more patience or humility, though I need those things too. My deepest need is to be cleansed from a heart that wants achievement and reputation to establish my worth and identity.
In Christ, I have all that I need and He welcomes me to come and be satisfied in Him.
Jesus never tells me to suck it up and serve my teammates. Instead, He serves me.
Through His coming, dying, and rising again, Jesus gives me what I could never earn for myself. Then He invites, commands, and enables me to receive His power and His grace, the only things that can free me to love and serve others.
Even when they snore.